Yesterday morning—for the first time in a very long time—I put on a blue Oxford shirt rather than a black clergy shirt. Pat and I then drove over to a place that holds memories for both of us: the church on Kent Island where I spent the first four years of my ordained ministry.
My hope, during sabbatical, is to visit some different churches and to see what it feels like to be an outsider. Do people welcome us? If so, how? What about their welcome makes me want to be a part of THIS world? Or is there none? Of course I could not test this out at Christ Church, Kent Island. Not a chance. The rector, Mark, knows me; as soon as he saw us, his smile spread from ear to ear and he came to greet us and hug us. He was delighted that we had come to worship. Within one minute, a woman who was to be lay chalicist saw us, and the same kind of effusive welcome happened. Later, at coffee hour, this same woman told me that all those years ago, I had had such a positive influence on her granddaughter’s life. I remembered this lovely young woman. I had no memory that I did anything special for her—other than to be present to her during her parent’s painful divorce, and to walk with her through that chaos and darkness. Just hearing this story, though, made me wonder at the amazing ways God works through what seem like chance encounters in my life. Once again, I was reminded that I am called to be a vessel of God’s love, and my role is simply to be faithful, and to be a listening presence. Maybe this is really what is important.
I sat in the worship space, first in quiet, then enjoying music as the organist began to play the prelude. The space was quiet and reverent, with the lingering feel of early morning sleepiness that the 8:00 congregation had brought with it. Almost as if—even by 9:45 a.m.—people had eased into this sunny morning and were not yet fully awake.
I looked up. In the wall above the altar, there is a window that is shaped like one of the windows in the old 1880 church in Stevensville. It is clear, so one can see the trees that gently move with the wind. Seeing this made me smile. This is a relatively new worship space—built since I served this parish as an associate. I was remembering the rather stark “other” worship space that was Phase One of a building campaign. For a number of years, the parish worshiped in what they knew would eventually be the parish hall. Virtually everything was movable there. Along one of the long sides of the room were bays of windows. Yesterday, with everything in bloom outside, I remembered one cold winter morning when I was celebrating worship. I happened to glance out of the windows, then I stopped where I was—maybe during announcements, maybe not—and said, “Oh, look, it’s snowing!” For a few sacred moments, liturgy was enhanced by silence. The entire congregation stopped to look , delighted by the sight of snow falling quietly, the backdrop of pine and fir trees dark against that white snow.
Yesterday, I remembered this long-ago gift, and how important it always was for this parish family to have some concrete sign of nature, of God’s creation that has always included more than human beings. That creation which existed long before human beings. That creation that we human beings have been given “to serve and to preserve,” as my Hebrew Scriptures professor Ellen Davis used to phrase it.
In front of the window at Christ Church hangs a beautiful wooden Canterbury cross. Later, in his sermon, Fr. Mark Delcuze reminded four young children (who were celebrating their First Communions yesterday) that this cross has four equal-sized arms. That means that the gospel is to go to all directions of the world equally, that the gospel is to go everywhere. And the arms are wider as they go in each direction—that means that the gospel is to grow. Jesus’ message of God’s love must get larger and larger as it is proclaimed in the gospel.
Mark also pointed out that the altar table was constructed with several different kinds of wood. There is some wood that came from the 1880 church in old Stevensville. There is some wood that came from the Old Wye Oak that was destroyed in June of 2002—at the ripe old age of at least 460 years! As Mark talked about that, it brought up yet another memory. The morning after that horrible storm, big trucks moved slowly down Romancoke Road, bearing the remains of that old oak tree. Before the 8:00 Sunday morning service, a group of us stood, hushed by reverence to silence, as we watched what looked like a funeral cortege going down the road. Now, as I sat in worship, I smiled, glad that part of that old giant’s wood was part of holy space, part of welcome to all who gather at this table that bears holy bread and holy wine.
Yesterday, it was a very different experience to sit in the congregation. On one side of me was the person who shares my life. On the other was the man who was rector and my first “boss” in ordained ministry. What a privilege it was to sit there and absorb all of the sights, sounds, silences of worship in a different way than I am accustomed to. I was fed on so many levels. Good space, holy place, good sermon. It was good to see old friends. It was good to experience worship like the average person in the “pew” (Christ Church has some pews, but most of the seating is cathedral seating, which I love). It was good to be welcomed—not exactly as a stranger, but like I had come home. On some level, I had.
© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton